This year, the cinema was packed with as many behind-the-scenes narratives as there were on the actual screen: Lars von Trier’s persona non-grata-fication at Cannes, Brett Ratner’s anti-charm offensive and The Help’s maybe-sorta racism were only a few of the hundreds of juicy storylines that made up 2011’s L.A. story. Luckily, there was plenty of drama left for theaters. Here’s the best of it.
1. The Tree of Life Terrence Malick’s God’s-eye view of a rural Texas family in the 1950s was the most innovative move by a director in recent years, not because Malick’s self-assigned omniscience was grand – though, with long, beautifully imagined passages devoted to the Big Bang and dinosaurs, it was also that – but because it was so intimate, so empathetic. The film’s tilted observation actually observes without guiding our eyes or our hearts; it grieves with the aggrieved and delights in a baby’s laugh the way that we all do because, Malick seems to be saying, every force of nature, from cosmic to cosmetic, gas cloud to picket fence, is the same, only clashing at different speeds. I’m not a spiritual man, but Tree of Life surely qualifies as a miracle.
2. The Descendants Shailene Woodley steals the show as the conflicted teenage daughter of George Clooney’s cuckold-in-shock. Note to Ms. Woodley: Please don’t turn into Lindsay Lohan.
3. Circumstance Daring director Maryam Keshavarz’s tender yet pinpoint-honest look at Western-minded, upper-middle-class girls in Iran took my breath away as much for its complex father-daughter drama as for the beauty of its two debut leading actresses, Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy.
4. Hesher Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of our most unpredictable actors, and his performance here as a terrifying force of nature that crashes, then torches, a sweet boy’s coming-of-age grief and the boy’s father’s catatonic self-pity is the kind of unpredictable that leaves you wide-eyed and nervously laughing all at once. Co-writer and director Spencer Susser’s debut feature is calm like a car bomb.
5. Hugo I would love to soak in this 3-D spectacular with my cinephile glasses on – director Martin Scorsese sprinkles his fantasy masterpiece with inside references like Reese’s Pieces left for E.T. – but Hugo is so entertaining that my cynical brain could only register childlike wonder. Scorsese doesn’t wonder at us, either (unlike a certain man-child auteur who was quite active this year); he instead weaves a captivating story, then invites us to join him in the wonderment. So polite.
6. Source Code Duncan Jones’ Moon follow-up felt like the best Twilight Zone episodes (or, more accurately, Quantum Leap): a simple concept delivered with exquisite verve that later reveals itself to be like narrative quicksand – the more I struggled against it, the more it pulled me in.